For decades, Flora Kabaruli has earned a living from weaving mats. But life is not the same anymore for the 50-year-old resident of Kaigo village in Kiziranfumbi sub-county, Hoima district; it has become increasingly hard to access raffia palm trees, which are the main source of raw materials for weaving mats.
“Getting raw materials has become really difficult. You have to move over 10km inside Nyansororo community forest,” says the mother of six. “I really don’t know what to do because to get some profit out of a mat, you must sell it at Shs 20,000, which customers cannot easily pay.”
Not so long, whenever Kabaruli wanted to weave a mat, she would walk to a nearby swamp and easily find raffia palm leaves. But ever since tobacco farmers in Bunyoro sub-region discovered that it is easier hanging tobacco leaves on raffia palm tree sticks than any other sticks for curing, raffia palms have disappeared at an alarming late.
Raffia palm sticks have sharp ends, which make it easy to stitch the tobacco leaves on them before they are aligned on sticks for curing. The raffia stems are also used for building tobacco curing barns.
Last year, the plight of raffia palm trees attracted the attention of Hoima district council, which passed a resolution, compelling all tobacco companies operating in the district to facilitate their farmers to plant raffia palm trees.
The resolution demands that companies allocate funds towards environmental protection and restoration. In this regard, they are required to work with Kwamya and Company Limited to distribute raffia palm tree seedlings to the farmers to restore the degraded areas.
However, according to the chairperson of the district Natural Resources Committee, James Mugenyi Mulindambura, almost all the companies have not adhered to the directive.
“The resolution was aimed at protecting areas with fragile eco-system, putting emphasis on raffia palm tree, which is at the verge of extinction mainly due to activities related to tobacco farming,” says Mulindambura.
“We notified even non-tobacco ones whose activities threaten raffia palm tree to cooperate with Kwamya. But Kwamya has reported that companies have not responded.”
As a result, the tree is under threat of extinction. The fate of the Raffia palms reflects the growing pressure human activities are putting on the environment. In many cases, the depletion of specific resources means the natural ecosystem is going to suffer. But it also means that humanity suffers as people grope about for alternatives.
Juma Atuhuura, a tobacco farmer in Kikuube-Lichaya village in Kiziranfumbi sub-county, says he has started paying the price of the extinction of the raffia palms.
“In the past, we could get material for using in our tobacco curing just by walking a kilometre or two to the river banks down there,” Atuhuura says.
“Now, we are buying the small sticks for piecing tobacco leaves at Shs 20 each, from people who bring them from the neighboring Bugambe sub-county.”
If you have no money to buy the sticks, the other option is to move a distance of between eight and 10 kilometres to Kajoga village in Munteme parish, Kiziranfumbi sub-county.
And the problem isn’t limited just to Hoima but the entire Bunyoro sub-region, which is one of Uganda’s leading producers of tobacco. According to Yose Ombedra, the Masindi district natural resources coordinator, the problem has been worsened by the springing up of many small-scale tobacco companies, following BAT’s downsizing of its activities.
“Nowadays, you see people coming all the way from Hoima to pick raffia,” Ombedra says.
“Raffia palm trees are endemic to particular swamps. Here, you get them mainly in Budongo, and people have already started invading the forest reserve.”
In Hoima, raffia palms were common along the banks of River Wambabya and River Kafu, but have ever since got extinct. The raffia palm has many uses. It is a traditional tree important for Palm Sunday. Raffia palm fibre is also used for crafts, locally known as Maswali in Bunyoro.
It is also used for ropes, sticks and supporting beams, and various roof coverings are made out of its fibrous branches and leaves. The membrane on the underside of each individual frond leaf is taken off to create a long thin fibre, which can be dyed and woven as a textile into products ranging from hats to shoes to decorative mats.
According to Wikipedia, plain raffia palm fibres are exported and used as garden ties or as a “natural” string in many countries. Especially when one wishes to graft trees, raffia palm is used to hold plant parts together as this natural rope has many benefits for this purpose.
Wikipedia further notes that raffia palm also provides an important cultural drink. The sap contains sugars. It is traditionally collected by cutting a box in the top of the palm and suspending a large gourd to collect the milky white liquid.
Unlike oil palms, this process kills the tree. Sap from both the raffia and oil palms can be allowed to ferment over a few days. When first collected from the tree, it is sweet and appears slightly carbonated. As it ages, more sugar is converted. The sap is usually called wine.
The raffia wine tends to be sweeter at any age when compared to oil palm wine. Both kinds of palm wine can also be distilled into strong liquors, such as Ogogoro. Traditionally, in some cultures where raffia and/or oil palm are locally available, guests and spirits are offered these drinks from the palm trees.
The Hoima district environment officer, Joselyn Nyangoma, says they are working with the district Environmental Protection Taskforce to protect the remaining raffia palms.
“Recently, we evicted some encroachers on River Wambabya in parts of Buseruka sub-county and we are moving to other areas for the same action. Here we are not only preventing the depletion of the raffia palm tree but the general environment,” says Nyangoma. She, however, fears that the vending of raffia palm sticks to tobacco farmers could escalate its depletion. Nyangoma calls for immediate action to regulate the business.